Advertising effects on environmental decisions

Christopher Johnson | July 30, 2019 | Leave a Comment Download as PDF


How does advertising influence consumers to take environmentally damaging decisions and how can it positively influence decision making thus leading to environmentally friendly behaviors? And why it must.

Marketeers and advertisers are advocates for consumption. In 2019 they spent 1.4 trillion dollars, promoting consumption – more than twice as much as the U.S spends on defense and still the rate of marketing expenditure is increasing, by 200 million dollars a day.

Very little ‘content’ is free, even less is free and unbiased. Virtually everything we read and everything we watch is part of a great apparatus for targeting and engaging with consumers, a global web of increasingly digital entanglement in which the vibration of every on-line click is sensed and processed with commercial intent.

As a CFO within a global marketing group I recognize that marketeers are a key, if not the key component, of a systemic threat to humanity and the biosphere. Given their purpose, it would be insulting not to see them in this light. Human behavior is responsible for climate change and marketeers are the manipulators of human behavior.

In April I started a conversation with Svitlana, a behavioral psychologist and Daniel, an anthropologist, on the topic of marketing and the environment. We arrived at some conclusions and along the way launched a survey to assess the awareness of, and sensitivity to, environmental issues among marketeers. One might expect that marketeers are either climate change deniers or must suffer attacks of guilt, but actually, no. 

Marketeers are well aware of climate change, they are aware that advertising encourages consumers to take decisions that are environmentally damaging, they would like things to be different and they know they could make them different. The statements below were constructed from the answers to the survey and the percentage of people giving these answers are indicated in brackets. So far, 86 replies have been received.

Replies to multiple choice questions:

  • Climatic and environmental conditions are deteriorating (93%).  
  • I am concerned, I think it is a serious problem (82%). 
  • Human action has a significant impact on the environment (94%) and action should be taken (98%), immediately (87%). 
  • Marketers and advertisers could positively influence decision making and behavior to the benefit of the environment (91%) and should do more to benefit the environment (96%).
  • Advertising sometimes influences consumer to take decisions that are environmentally damaging (96%). 
  • I’d feel better if all of my clients and their products had a positive impact on the environment (94%). 
  • I would personally like to work on projects that positively have a positive impact on the environment (83%). 

To the question; “How does advertising influence consumers to take environmentally damaging decisions?” Representative answers were:

  • By stimulating immediate and unconscious consumption, without informing consumers of the environmental consequences.
  • By not communicating the whole truth about behavior that impacts negatively on the environment.
  • By influencing consumption without showing the impact caused or supporting measures that would mitigate or reduce the impact.

To the question; “How can advertising positively influence decision making and thus lead to environmentally friendly behaviors?” Representative answers were:

  • By disseminating positive ideas and making people conscious of the environment.  Also, by efforts to make clients more aware/conscious.
  • Through innovative actions that reflect our reality and the future that we need to build as of now. Promoting the consumption of environmentally beneficial products. Using creativity to develop environmentally friendly solutions.
  • By changing the behavior of people that work with publicity, our clients and consumers. Publicists impart value. Publicists need to modify their mindset with respect to the value of the of the things that they sell.

Marketeers would like to have a positive impact on the environment, but they don’t see how the opportunity would arise. As one put it, “No one will pay us to tell people not to buy stuff and if someone did, it would upset all our other clients.”

People need a reason for doing things. The reason that we must market more responsibly – and that includes developing and marketing more environmentally responsible products – is that our clients’ businesses will fail, and our own along with them, if we don’t. This is why:

When we value companies, we estimate their profits far into the future and reduce those expected profits to present value using discount rates that reflect the degree of uncertainty in expected returns. Depending on the numbers, 60% of value may depend upon profits that are expected to arise more than 10 years from now and 30% on profits arising more than 20 years from now. Today, we know that climate change is real, that it will have a significant impact and that both the extent and impact of climate are uncertain. In finance, uncertainty equates to risk and risk demands a return. As uncertainty increases, we increase the discount rate and so reduce the present value of the company.

Imagine you own a beach resort. The land is a valuable non-depreciating asset on your company balance sheet and the entire business is valued as a going concern. NASA then publish a report concluding that global temperatures may increase by 3 degrees within decades and rising sea levels will put your resort underwater. The premise that land has an unlimited useful economic life no longer holds and clearly, there may come a point when your business literally ‘goes under’. 

In theory we should see climate change beginning to depress share prices, some academic studies have found only inconclusive evidence that it is, so in practice it isn’t, yet. This only means that adjustment, when it happens, will be all the more abrupt. Climate change is the Elephant in the room of the global economy.

In the brief months since we started our conversation, we have witnessed a number of significant events, including the Extinction Rebellion movement in London, the ‘flight shame’ movement in Sweden, and the determination by the UK government that the UK should become carbon neutral by 2050. Everything is changing so fast.

The initially overwhelming idea that mankind is so rapidly causing so much destruction is beginning to sink in. Denying this or ignoring it – as stock markets and coastal property markets are at present – is consistent with the Kubler-Ross model of dealing with grief, of which the first stage is denial and the second stage is anger. Denial is wide-spread but signs of anger are emerging. The ‘flight shame’ movement in Sweden has resulted in falling passenger numbers for seven consecutive months and a decline in business for Scandinavian Airlines, for whom climate change has already caused a shift in the demand curve.

Climate Action 100+ an alliance of investment funds who together manage over 33 trillion dollars in assets is obliging ‘systemically significant emitters’, such as Royal Dutch Shell, to publish emission targets and tie executive pay to meeting those targets. Climate Action 100+ explain their actions by referring not to their environmental conscience but to their fiduciary duty to beneficiaries and presumably a desire to see their investments survive the transition to the post-carbon economy. There is no doubt that this transition will occur. 

Marketeers are creative and persuasive. Our thinking leads us to suggest that the ‘edited’ messages that marketeers have crafted have skewed consumer behavior in ways that are prejudicial to the environment. For behavior to change, people must evolve from ‘knowing how’, to ‘being aware’, they must evolve from ‘homo-sapiens’ to ‘homo-cognitos’, people must come to think of themselves as ‘responsible agents’. We know that feeling accountable increases one’s sense of self-worth, something that many millennials are currently seeking, and conclude that a virtuous circle can be developed with marketeers assuming a catalytic role in promoting the evolution from the consumption-based carbon economy to a creative based post-carbon economy in which both threatened species and threatened clients may survive.


2019 U$ 1.4 trillion global Advertising and Marketing spend: PQ Media. com

Note: 2018 @ $1.299 trillion + 4.6% = $1.358 trillion 2019

Svitlana Samoylenko, Psychologist and Trainer. Specializes in Cognitive-Behavioral Psychology and Adult Learning, heading a boutique training company in South Brazil.

Daniel Diniz is an advertising and communications industry strategist. He is a specialist in consumer behavior and enthusiastic about how communication and marketeers can change customers mindsets.

Christopher Johnson, is a CFO with a global marketing services group. He believes that businesses are not prepared for the transition to the post-carbon economy.


The MAHB Blog is a venture of the Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere. Questions should be directed to

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The views and opinions expressed through the MAHB Website are those of the contributing authors and do not necessarily reflect an official position of the MAHB. The MAHB aims to share a range of perspectives and welcomes the discussions that they prompt.
  • I do not know how far marketers as the say in the product they market? Also, how many viable alternate options they have when they choose not to market non-ecofriendly products?

  • If marketers are to have an impact, the message needs to both encourage more environmental awareness and have a positive economic impact. For the most part, companies are not going to pay more to get less.

  • Sailesh Rao

    Marketers are playing an important role in this global game of how money is created
    and earned within our industrial civilization. This game coordinates all our economic activities and the established rules of the game (Fractional Reserve Mechanism, etc.) fosters the Speciesism, Colonialism, Racism and Patriarchy (SCRAP) prevalent today, while confining our social consciousness at a fear-based, ego-driven, grasping, owning level which is not conducive to healing the planet or ourselves. However, I doubt that our problems can be solved by merely tweaking the role of the marketers as that doesn’t change the game, nor our consciousness.

    For more details, please check out

    • Christopher Johnson

      Sailesh, Thank you for that thought provoking comment. Games have rules and objectives; players have roles in the game. If you change the rules or the objectives, or the roles of the players, the game does change. Don’t you think?

      • Sailesh Rao

        Agreed, but to truly change the game, we must change the rules of the game AND the roles of the players, not just the role of one set of players (marketers) without changing the rules of the game. For an example, please check out We need marketers to promote this new game in the old system and then assume new roles in the new game.

        • Svitlana Samoylenko

          Sailesh, do you agree that if some (or many or even most) sets of players were to change their role in the ‘game’, that the game itself would have to change in turn? I mean, these are complex non-linear processes, and I personally believe that no initiative should be considered insignificant or somehow ‘not enough’. No single initiative is ‘enough’, of course! Yet, there is no single way I can see that everything might change all at once… We do not fully know the potential effects of any single action or decision, and thus I think *every* such action should be encouraged 🙂

          • Sailesh Rao

            In the current game, if marketers discourage the consumption of a product for environmental reasons, then it is likely those marketers will be fired by the manufacturer of the product and replaced by marketers who play by the rules. The rules of the game are dictated by the Fractional Reserve Money system, which fundamentally creates a “Lender vs. Borrower” dichotomy among the players of the game and keeps humanity confined to a low, fear-based, ego-driven level of consciousness.

            As Buckminster Fuller said, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

          • Christopher Johnson

            That’s not actually the case. Here is KLM saving ‘Fly less’.



          • Sailesh Rao

            That’s why I wrote, “likely”. KLM is an outlier, not the norm and even KLM promotes feel-good palliatives like CO2 offsets. In the current game, corporations that promote a reduction in their quarterly revenues don’t last.

  • A machine honed by professionals to manipulate people to consume and worship false gods is destroying the planet and there is no value system in place to mitigate their damage. Advancing the idea that marketeers can save the planet misses that there is no mechanism in place to force that to happen and it will not happen by itself. This article hits the problem like a hammer on a nail but:

    I was listening to an old flickering black and white Bertrand Russel interview days ago in which Bertrand believed ‘offshoring’ would not happen because the owners of companies had a social conscience which would prevent it from happening. He was totally wrong as history has shown. Driving to work last month I was behind a tanker truck with big green letters on the back which said: ‘Green Petroleum’. I ‘ll agree, very pretty good marketing that is. The green letters made me feel warm and fuzzy all over.

    Change will not come from within. We will not be having commercials which tell people not to buy the very items being advertised. That would be impossible. The actual answer is no marketing at all, only art.

    Catalog lookup for actual needs but that is way too big an idea for people to get their heads around. But such a world would be a world living within limits; understanding that marketing actually influences people. Part of marketing is to convince people that marketing has no effect on them. A task which marketing has very skilfully done. Lifestyle or fundamental change could save the planet but I won’t ape Bertrand Russel and suggest people will or can come to their senses on this. That would be foolish and as impossible as expecting capitalism to be human as Russell did when he believed higher values would prevent globalization.

    Few people know why they do what they do. Marketing can promote positive action but only if it were directed to do so by a higher authority. A hard draconian truth but the reality of the situation says to me marketing is one physician who will not be healing themselves. By that I mean marketing only, and not Christopher, who is healthy.

    • Christopher Johnson

      “Marketing is one physician who will not be healing themselves”. A safe bet but, “believe and you are half way there”. I do believe we can activate the human conscience within the marketing machine.

    • Arnold Byron

      I’m not quite certain how your statement, “Marketing can promote positive action but only if it were directed to do so by a higher authority”, is to be interpreted. Should your ‘higher authority’ be religious, governmental or administrative? I am of the opinion that it should be administrative.

      Please recognize that the crises facing humanity: issues such as overpopulation; global warming; the hazards of atomic energy; the hazards of plastics degradation; and others including overconsumption and marketeerism are global in scope. Then ask yourself: Apart from The United Nations, is there an office on the global scale which has been established by the nations of the world and has been given the authority to develop solutions for the above crises? The answer is: No, the world has not yet taken that step.

      Please check out the following links. These links outline how I think such an office can be created and made to work. I have written my thoughts under the title ‘A Plan for the Nations’.

      • I am checking out the links. A lot to check out. A temporary government. I’m dubious. The first rule of power is self-preservation. Forgetting that leads to tyranny and not a good kind of tyranny at that.

        Top down also got us all into this mess and enforced egalitarian structures with power regulated on the basis of meritocracy and merit will be the only structures with futures worth having. If people are going to live within limits by choice only egalitarian societies can possibly work.

    • Svitlana Samoylenko

      Hi K-Dog!
      I totally get how easy it might be to state that “there is no value system” – after all, that is the message we are bombarded with daily, directly and indirectly. However, I profoundly disagree with the statement. I believe there are *various* value systems which can sustain responsible stewardship of natural resources. I mean, you seem to operate within such a value system yourself, is that not the case? As does every single person that commented so far, this very community and many others like it, etc. etc. etc. If that is the case, then each of us is individually accountable to identifying with people who hold such values, so that together we may create larger impact.

      • You correct me appropriately. I mean the culture we are embedded in is without appropriate values. And ‘values’ are the higher authority that marketing, which I see as the raw manipulation of people be it for good or bad; must to be subject to for enforcement of goodness. Marketing is the raw manipulation of people and has no conscience itself.

        Marketing markets, it sells consumer items to consumers. It convinces people to buy, and whenever it does it always does for another purpose, usually profit. Marketing to me is Eddie Bernays convincing women to smoke.

        Convincing consumers to consume at any level is not consistent with sustainable goals. I can imagine special situations which can be thrown back at me to criticize that last sentence (but consuming this consumes less of that) but its’ truth is axiomatic. Consumption draws down resources period ‘.’ there are no if and or buts about it and marketing is traditionally used to cause people to consume.

        Exactly what job would marketing do to help out? I ask that question rhetorically because I have a point to make.

        I do not believe the world has any future unless deep changes are made to peoples attitudes. Modern culture uses ‘things’ to make people feel good about themselves and marketing supports that paradigm right down the line. That needs to stop. Using things to make yourself feel good about yourself eats the planet.

        If the techniques of marketing are used to spread sustainable solidarity I am fine with that, and actually beyond fine with it.

        I look at my bookshelf and see “Propaganda’ by Eddie Bernays. Next to it is ‘The father of Spin’ a biography about that SOB.

        I have read Propaganda and I will use any trick I can to make the world a better place. It is obvious to me marketing techniques have a place and that causes me to comment here. Combining marketing with sustainability itself however is a contradiction and suggests that culture as we know it can continue if it is ‘tweeked’ enough. That is my major objection to this essay.

        Marketing to me is a religion which uses the techniques of psychology to pray to profit and endless growth. Can someone give me a better definition?

        Once it might have been possible for business as usual to be simply modified when there were fewer people and were brakes put on the endless growth paradigm. But that was not done and now we have a huge population that is going to have to learn to do with less; one way or another as the years go by. By nature or forethought, it is the choice of humanity.

        • Christopher Johnson

          K-Dog, can you further explain your thinking when you say.”Without mediating values they are at odds and suggesting they work together without mediating values suggests that culture as we know it can continue if it is ‘tweeked’ enough. That is my major objection to this essay.” ?

          • Consumption eats the planet. Marketing exists to promote consumption. If marketing supported
            appropriate consumption and discouraged excess consumption that would be great, but marketing as we know it is a pure product of capitalism. Marketing exists to sell more than what people need. Marketing supports profit and the only measure of marketing success is the dollar. The measure of success is never the satisfaction of genuine need.

            Genuine need is satisfied by consumers making proactive choice to seek out a product information on their own in the absence of marketing. Marketing as we know it has products hunting for customers instead. A flip of any sustainable order. Good marketing if there is such a thing would only support informed choice. It would not manipulate to sell. How can marketing exist so as not to promote consumption and fuel the desire for ever more stuff? I do not see how.

            Marketing and endless growth seem to be joined at the hip. A higher authority is compelled because the needs of the planet and humanity are at cross purposes to the goal of marketing, which is to sell more of anything.

            I’ll pass on naming a needed higher authority because that would dilute the point that marketing is at odds with humanity and the biosphere. Less marketing would be good for the planet. Is that not true?

            Appropriate marketing would be nothing more than detailed catalogue description available to consumers who already had decided to buy on a need to know basis. Nothing more because anything more speaks to emotions not need.

            Point of sale marketing could be appropriate if it were not inflicted on the public in any way. Point of sale would confine marketing to those who would already be wanting product info.

  • Andrew Gaines

    Well, there is stuff we need, and stuff we don’t really need. Christopher, if your company were to take global warming and the possibility of extinction seriously – as obviously you do – it could:

    • Refuse to promote excess consumption (obviously affecting your bottom line).
    • Encourage companies that are your clients to assert publicly that we are in an ecological emergency, and that ‘our proper goal is to transition to a life-affirming culture, rather than continuing on our present course of ecological self-destruction’.

    The Great Transition Initiative ( has a well worked out rationale for this. I would be happy to talk with you about it.

    Yours for a world that works for all!


    Andrew Gaines
    Great Transition Initiative
    +612 8005-8382
    Accelerating the transition to a life-affirming culture

    • Christopher Johnson

      I agree and look forward to talking with you about the Greay Transformation Initiative.